William H. Johnson's Taste of Europe

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 25, 2006

African American artist William H. Johnson was born in Florence, S.C., in 1901 and worked his way through art school in New York. The Smithsonian American Art Museum is currently displaying three rooms of its Johnson prints in a show called "William H. Johnson's World on Paper." It makes clear that neither Florence nor New York is where his first mature work seems most at home: His boldly rendered woodblock prints owe everything to the expressionist art of Northern Europe.

After a few years spent in Paris looking at modern French art, in 1930 he married a Dane and the two lived in Scandinavia until 1938. His prints of the period show the influence of the Norwegian Edvard Munch -- whom he met -- and of Germans such as Ernst Kirchner and Emil Nolde, whose work was well known in his wife's native land. Johnson was a very strong exponent of the style, though he came to it a bit late. Not many other Americans -- and even fewer African Americans -- channeled the dour northern mode as well as Johnson.

When he returned to the United States with his wife in 1938 -- Europe, once seen to be a haven for American blacks, was being poisoned for them by a growing Nazi presence -- he discovered the flat fields of bright color allowed by silk-screen printing. His pictures have a lot in common with the folk-inspired work of Jacob Lawrence, a younger artist working in New York around the same time. These later Johnson silk-screens of black Americans -- as entertainers in Harlem and as farmers in the South -- have less angstful energy than his earlier woodcuts of Danish fishermen, or than Lawrence's contemporary images of the black migration north.

Johnson's art may have gotten cheerier, but his life certainly didn't. His wife died of breast cancer in 1944. He began to suffer from advanced syphilis, which affected both his mental and his motor skills. By 1947, he'd entered the Central Islip State Hospital on Long Island, where he died in 1970, almost totally forgotten. His reputation has since revived, and American Art owns more than 1,000 of his works.

William H. Johnson's World on Paper, at the American Art Museum, runs through Jan. 7.

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